The foundations of a losing season can sometimes pay dividends down the line for a college football team.
That’s the case for NC State, which improved from a 4–8 record in 2019 to a 7–2 record heading into its Week 11 matchup with Boston College football in 2022. Two or three years from now, BC (3–7, 2–5 Atlantic Coast) can only hope it will have rebounded as well as NC State (7–3, 3–3) has this season.
BC took a step in the right direction on Saturday. Head coach Jeff Hafley’s Eagles took the Wolfpack down, spoiling senior night in Raleigh. BC shocked No. 17 NC State with a 21–20 victory, pulling off its first win against an AP Top-25 ranked opponent since beating then-No. 9 Southern California in 2014.
In MJ Morris’ second career start for NC State, the young signal caller—starting in place of Devin Leary, who’s out for the rest of the season—imploded in the second half, leading to the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown from backup quarterback Emmett Morehead to freshman Joseph Griffin Jr. with 14 seconds remaining.
“Hugs, tears, dancing, loud, a lot of hugs,” Hafley said of the locker room atmosphere after the game. “A lot of guys are just letting it all out. It’s the No. 16 team in the country going for 17 straight wins at home [with] 30-plus fifth-year [and] sixth-year guys walking out. No one thought we could win.”
It wasn’t going to be easy for Morris to best his last two performances—he passed for a combined 475 yards and six touchdowns in victories against Virginia Tech and No. 20 Wake Forest. For much of the first half, Morris, who BC picked off once and who fumbled three times, showcased his arm talent and ability to escape the pocket, but mishandling of the ball in the second half led to the Wolfpack’s defeat.
On NC State’s first play of the game, wide receiver Thayer Thomas made a ridiculous grab over Jason Maitre for 23 yards. Four plays later, Morris identified redshirt junior tight end Trent Pennix—another one of his veteran playmakers streaking across the field—and fired a 27-yard touchdown pass.
“We knew what they were going to run,” said defensive end Marcus Valdez. “They came out with that first grip on us. They came out with a few trick plays, and there were some wrinkles we needed to make some adjustments to, and we made them. I was preaching to the guys—they don’t know the adversity that we’ve been through.”
NC State’s fiery defense, led by junior Drake Thomas, junior Payton Wilson, and graduate student Isaiah Moore, ranked first in the ACC in points allowed per game, rushing yards allowed, and third-down conversion. It was tied for first in interceptions heading into the week. The defensive unit caused havoc for the Eagles early in the game.
BC’s offensive dry spell—which included two three-and-outs to start the game—continued as the Wolfpack got rolling again on their next offensive series. Morris piled onto the points total, trotting into the end zone on a 10-yard run that put the Wolfpack up 14–0.
Zay Flowers provided a spark for BC’s offense when Morehead connected with Flowers on a 17-yard touchdown pass, cutting NC State’s lead to seven points.
“I put him up against any wide receiver in the country,” Hafley said of Flowers. “To be honest, there’s not another wide receiver I want on my team. Any wide receiver, he’s the one I’m picking because I know exactly what I’m going to get out of him. It’s so much bigger than football for [Flowers]. It’s the type of kid he is. It’s the right choices he’s made.”
In the first quarter, Flowers became the all-time receiving yards leader in BC football history with 2,900 career yards, surpassing Alex Amidon’s 2,800 yards. Flowers finished the game with seven catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m not sure a lot of people we’re aware of that, which speaks more to Zay than anything,” Morehead said. “I love his energy. We need more people like that in this world. Just unrelenting positivity.”
Leading 20–7 four minutes into the second half thanks to a pair of Christopher Dunn field goals from 30 and 45 yards, it looked like NC State was going to run away with the lead.
But Flowers sparked the offense again.
With 7:13 left in the third quarter, Flowers scooped up a short pass, scrambling 35 yards down the field into the endzone, and the Eagles cut their deficit to 20–14.
“I gave him a crossing shallow route that usually picks up five or so yards,” Morehead said. “And then it goes for a 40-yard touchdown. It makes the quarterback’s life so much easier. It’s four first downs you don’t have to get—a whole red zone drive you don’t have to do—when you can just turn the corner like that.”
From that point on, BC’s defense wouldn’t relent. On eight of NC State’s last nine offensive drives, the Eagles forced four punts, three fumbles and one interception.
“Sometimes, you got to believe before you can see it,” Valdez said. “Belief was there anyways, but belief is going to skyrocket. We know what style of football we play. We play tough.”
BC’s final offensive drive started with 2:47 left in the fourth quarter, and a number of scrappy plays salvaged it. First, Dino Tomlin secured a big-time, 29-yard pass that put the Eagles on the doorstep. Then, George Takacs received a 17-yard pass on his knees that put the Eagles on NC State’s 14-yard line.
Morehead routinely scrambled out of a congested pocket, and with the worst rushing offense in the country behind him, he was forced to lead with his arm.
In the final minute, the Eagles had a fourth-and-6. Morehead threw a pass intended for Griffin Jr., and while it was an incomplete pass, officials called NC State’s Drake Thomas for pass interference.
BC was handed the ball with two yards to go.
With an empty set, Morehead went back to Griffin and connected this time, tying up the game at 20–20. Connor Lytton’s successful extra point took the lead for the Eagles, and there wasn’t enough time on the clock for NC State and its booing audience to force a comeback effort.
“You got a redshirt freshman to a true freshman,” Hafley said. “The amount of times those two have worked on that together, it was almost like second nature. I think you just saw the future.”